I roll slowly to my side and study the outline of the low dresser across the room. I am hoping to see a Pitcher of warm milk and a basket of rusks there, a white sugar bowl, a jar of instant coffee and a pot of hot water. I don’t like instant coffee, and rusks are rather dry and tasteless unless I dip them in the caffeine-saturated beverage. If I do, though, the flavor and texture become suddenly delightful and I know the maid has been in and I am still in South Africa, and I am supremely happy because I have a whole day of wing shooting ahead of me.
The hot water bottle at the foot of the bed has given up its warmth. It jiggles as I swing my feet to the tile floor. It is cool in the room, cooler yet outside. Electricity is expensive here, and other than the fireplace in the sitting room, there is no inside source of heat. Before coming here to hunt waterfowl, I had thought all of Africa was hot. Hot and flat–that’s what the magazine pictures had indicated. Indeed. It was 30 degrees in Molteno last night, and in the moonlight I can see frost on the grass beneath the sweet thorn outside my window. If there was a full moon, I would be able to see a herd of blesbok picking across the waving expanse of redgrass, and but for that, I could be back home in Washington State, looking out upon rugged, mountainous, Snake River chukar country.
My professional hunter, William Phillips, is tapping gently at the door. “Time to get up, Alan,” he calls. “Dress warmly.”
William is a good man. I think I have been a mystery to him as I am not particularly interested in hunting Africa’s big game. “Birds,” I told him when I booked the hunt. “That’s what I want– Francolin and sand grouse, rock pigeon and dove and guinea fowl. And most of all, I want a crack at some of those Egyptian and spurwing geese. Can you find some for me?”
“Oh yes, we will find them okay,” William says, but he says “yeahz” and “ah-kay.” It was all very English. I occasionally have a difficult time understanding him. And vice versa.
A slight groan and I am up. We covered some miles yesterday, high-stepping behind two flowing pointers. This is William’s own ranch–small by South African standards–a “mere” 6,000 acres. I think he knows the location of every covey of francolin. These are the greywings, the ones Afrikaners call “bergpatrys”–mountain partridge. A cryptic brown flecked with yellow and white, their cheeks and bib are a rusty brown, their legs a pale yellow. They remind me very much of our Hungarian partridge, and when a covey flushes, screeching their characteristic “ki-ki-ki-ki,” I sometimes forget some of the shooting basics. Chukars affect me the same way. It has always seemed impossible to me that a seasoned wing shooter can miss a flush over a solid point, but I do it often enough to remain humble, even during my “on” days.
This morning, we are after geese. Egyptian geese. William has promised me some fantastic field shooting later, when we are nearer to Tweespruit, but for now, just to satisfy my curiosity, we will be jump-shooting a couple of his stock ponds. There is also the possibility of spurwing geese, those 20-pound pterodactyl-looking creatures with a distinctive “spur” at the elbow of each three-foot wing.
It is July in South Africa, but I dress as if for a late-October duck hunt back home–long underwear, heavy camo pants and a wool shirt over something lighter. I slide into my game vest and don my “dork hat” with the earflaps just in case the wind picks up, which it probably will. I can always take it off. I help myself to the coffee and rusks as I quickly go over my notes and organize my shells. Then I hear William loading the truck, and pretty soon the Toyota roars to life, and I know William’s tracker/skinner/right-hand-man, Elliot, will be standing on the bumper in his green army fatigues, all business, ready to go.
Ring-necked doves are just beginning to coo from the junipers next to the house and a bat-eared fox darts through the headlights. We bounce onto the dirt track heading to the valley away from the farmhouse. The geese will probably still be loafing on shore next to the grass banks. Perhaps they’ll be on the water. In any event, William has assured me we will find them.
The sun is peeking through a cloud on the crest of the nearby mountains when we stop near the first pond and begin our sneak. We are still 30 yards from water when two stunning, cinnamon-colored birds rise silently from the mist and begin to fly away.
“Egyptians!” William says in a loud whisper.
Instinct takes over and I swing my old Ithaca double through the lead bird and pull the trigger. Then, I move to the second bird. The morning silence is shattered and my first Egyptian geese thump solidly into the grass.
“Nice shooting, Alan,” William calls. “Very nice shooting.” Like I said, he is a good man, though I think chasing impala makes more sense to him.
My wife sticks her head in the door. “I thought you were up,” she scolds. “You need to get the lawn mowed so I can set the sprinklers. Katie’s baseball game is at 10, and your sister’s birthday party is at one. We still have to pick up a gift.” I rub my eyes, get up and shuffle toward the shower. The rusks and warm milk are gone from the low dresser. I am missing them terribly.
Alan Liere’s award-winning tales have been collected into three books available from Pease Mountain Publications, P.O. Box 216, Deer Park, WA 99006. Order Bear Heads and Fish Tales ($9.95), . . .and pandemonium rained ($14.95), or Dancin’ With Shirley ($14.95). Please add $2.00 each for return postage.